_DSC0185 (Common Raven)Ooh, I love this time of year, as I cast my mind back to all the wonderful and not-so-wonderful books that I have encountered over the past twelve months. Starting a series of posts on the highlights of my reading year, I feel that I must start with this. My favourite discovery of 2014 has to be Marco Malvaldi, an Italian crime author with more than one string to his bow. I have read and reviewed three of his books this year at Crimefictionlover.com , but am keen as mustard for more people to discover this clever, witty and hugely entertaining writer, with the added bonus of Howard Curtis’ pitch perfect translations. I implore you to enter the madcap world of amateur sleuth Massimo the barman, and the curmudgeonly elderly patrons of his bar, with whom you will share more than a few wry smiles along the way…

gameforfive200Game For Five is the first instalment in the Bar Lume series, which are bestsellers in the author’s native Italy. Set in a small coastal town in Tuscany, the book features Massimo – a barman and amateur sleuth – and a gaggle of hilarious old timers in their 70s and 80s. Between downing shots of espresso, and lively card games, Massimo and his cohorts while away the time chatting and arguing. When a young girl is brutally murdered near their watering hole, and left in a trash can, they start theorising about events surrounding her death.

The victim’s less than moral lifestyle makes everyone think her death is connected to the world of drugs and casual sex in which she was immersed. Two of the prime suspects in her murder are linked to this very lifestyle. Out of their love of gossip and their wit and intelligence, the old friends at Bar Lume begin to pull the case to pieces.

With his connection to the discovery of the body, Massimo is coerced into the role of amateur sleuth and becomes the overseer of this band of merry pensioners. He systematically scrutinises their friends and neighbours. Add into the mix an arrogant yet ineffectual local police officer called Fusco, who investigates the murder, and the scene is set for the amateurs to solve the crime.

The book has an endorsement from Andrea Camilleri, and if you are an admirer of the Inspector Montalbano series you won’t be disappointed. The characterisation is absolutely marvelous throughout, from the hangdog barman Massimo through to the unruly pensioners with their politically incorrect observations and acidic treatment of their neighbours, who are possible suspects.

What I found particularly interesting were the slight differences in the relationships Massimo has with each player in the piece. His elderly customers exasperate and entertain him in equal measure. With the barmaid, Tiziana, there is consistently flirtatious and affectionate interaction. As Massimo becomes more entwined with the murder investigation there are some wonderfully spiky scenes between him and Inspector Fusco. They stiffen Massimo’s resolve to find the real culprit, and bring justice for the victim’s mother, with whom he confers during the course of his unsolicited investigation. Massimo really does don the hat of a detective, systematically eliminating potential suspects, and gradually working out who the real killer is.

He is a multi-layered and empathetic character, and along with the colourful members of the community in which he resides, adds a real texture and solidity to the plot. The unruly old timers are fantastically well-realised, and the barbed wit and general bonhomie between them is a delight throughout the book. They’re full of humour and yet make knowing nods to the frustrations growing old. In relation to the humour, I would make special mention of Howard Curtis’ translation, which seems to convey the atmosphere, dialogue and lively writing style of the author perfectly.

With a great blend of humour and underlying darkness, Game For Five, proves to be an excellent introduction to the owner and customers of Bar Lume and their small community. An entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Three-Card Monte is the second instalment in the Bar Lume series. Set in a small coastal town in Tuscany, the book once again features Massimo – a barman and amateur sleuth – and a gaggle of hilarious old timers. Between espresso, and lively card games, Massimo and his cohorts while away the time chatting and arguing, but nothing sets their tongues a-wagging more than an unsolved crime.

The Twelfth International Workshop on Macromolecular and Biomacromolecular Chemistry – “What a waste of capital letters,” one character comments – has descended upon the small coastal town of Pineta in Northern Italy. Massimo and Aldo, one of the curmudgeonly pensioners, are to provide catering during its coffee and lunch breaks. Much excitement and speculation ensues when an esteemed Japanese professor dies under mysterious circumstances – it is quickly deemed a homicide.

Massimo reluctantly reprises his role as an amateur detective when summoned by the marvellously ineffectual Inspector Fusco to aid the investigation. With the conference ending in three days, with all delegates heading back to their native countries, there is little time to catch the killer. But fear not. Within the safety of their favourite watering hole, Massimo and his aged band of speculators have their own theories and serendipitous insights into the murder and who is culpable.

From the opening chapter Malvaldi instantly draws us back into his cynical and witty writing style that so impressed in the first book. Koichi Kawaguchi is seen as nervous, apprehensive of Italy’s chaos and of attending the conference. He ponders the travails of the days ahead. Meanwhile, Massimo is blighted by the installation of WiFi in Bar Lume – it only works at one table, under a tree, which is invariably occupied by his stubborn, elderly cohorts. There’s a less than serious tone to this murder mystery, but it’s one that will entertain and delight in equal measure. Malvaldi’s attention to characterisation is superb throughout, as you find yourself, like Massimo, exasperated by his unruly pensioners but thoroughly entertained by their non-PC observations, saucy humour, and scathing complaints about their friends and neighbours.

In common with Andrea Camilleri and Marco Vichi, the inherent wit of the book is tempered by an intriguing murder mystery. Malvaldi has constructed a neat and engaging crime plot, nicely peppered with scientific geekery. It illustrates perfectly the competitive professional rivalries that exist in the scientific professions, and the race to make that one great discovery, and how far others will go to thwart this. The level of detail that Malvaldi insinuates into the plot adds to the overall enjoyment of the mystery, lending a credible feel to the whole affair. His fluid and engaging prose with its perfectly placed vignettes of humour is totally entertaining, but yet sates the thirst of those craving a tricksy and puzzling murder mystery. An absolute gem.

And why not seek out this cheeky little stand alone with its tongue-in-cheek on the Golden Age murder mystery genre…

A country house murder mystery, complete with locked room conundrum and a nod to the Golden Age, The Art of Killing Well is set in a Tuscan castle in the year 1895. It’s the home of the seventh Barone di Roccapendente and his extended family, all of whom seem indolent, rude or quite simply barking mad.

On this particular weekend they plan to hunt wild boar. The Barone has invited not only the reputable photographer Signor Ciceri, but also the real life chef Pellegrino Artusi who is compiling his masterpiece, The Science of Cooking and The Art of Eating Well.

With two cats as companions, and his well-thumbed edition of Sherlock Holmes, Artusi’s presence is an absolute joy, giving rise to the inveterate snobbery of the Barone’s clan, however he is generally indifferent to the supposed wealth and influence of his hosts. Things get underway with a murder. This time, it wasn’t the butler… no, he was the victim. Artusi, with his nose for a mystery, relishes the challenge of unmasking a killer. As he delves into the inner workings of this not so noble family, he uncovers a hotbed of gambling, sexual shenanigans and greed, but can he reveal the true murderer?

Few books make me laugh out loud, but the acidic and wry humour here is pure entertainment. With the gentle intrusion of an omniscient narrator, who provides a series of observations from a contemporary viewpoint as well as injecting dry asides as to the moral integrity of the aristocratic family, the book sparkles with wit. Malvaldi excels in a series of humorous little vignettes, detailing the weaknesses and foibles of these eccentric and incredibly dislikable people. Characters are described variously as having the intelligence of a fruit bowl, or dressing in a cross between a monk’s habit and a grain silo. Much fun is poked at the idiosyncrasies of the rich along with cynical asides about the politics and social mores of the period. The natural alacrity and joie de vivre of Artusi is set against the rather buttoned down dryness of his eminent hosts. The author garners considerable enjoyment from the jokes at their expense.

The rumbustious Artusi is a wonderfully warm and multi-layered character, seemingly intent on just sampling the earthy and rustic Tuscan fare for his cookery book, but actually donning the mantle of detective with consummate ease, walking in the footsteps of his hero Holmes. Added to the mix is local policeman l’inspettore Artistico, who has little time or patience for the demands of the Roccapendente family, but who forms a touching alliance with our chef in the course of the investigation, particularly in the wake of a second attempted murder.

It is not a thick book, but a fully satisfying one not only due to how the unfortunate butler is dispatched, but also because of how this death unearths such a viper’s nest of corruption. The plot unfolds with all the charisma of a traditional Agatha Christie, but its near-the-knuckle humour and bizarre characters provide an all together more fulfilling reading experience. A perfectly bijou and mischievous crime book, I would be more than happy to read it again in years to come.

(With thanks to Europa Editions and Quercus for allowing me to discover Malvaldi)

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